The year is 1905. It’s not a particularly good time to be an ambitious woman, especially an African-American woman.
Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel is about the empowerment of one woman, Esther Mills, who lives in New York in 1905. At 35, Esther has established a reputation for creating exquisite lingerie for both the rich, white women of Fifth Avenue and the African-American prostitutes working in the bordellos of a section of the city known as the Tenderloin.
The play will be presented by the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Performing Arts Department. The production is directed by Sharon Ott.
As the play opens, Esther is seen in Mrs. Dickson’s rooming house, where she is making lingerie for her fellow boarder Corinna Mae’s wedding night. Esther wonders whether she will ever fall in love.
Even though she can’t read or write, Esther begins corresponding with a laborer from Barbados named George Armstrong, who is working on the Panama Canal. Her letters are written for her by Mrs. Van Buren, one of her wealthy clients, and Mayme, a prostitute.
When George comes to America, he and Esther are married. For the occasion, Esther makes George a "fine worsted suit" from material she has bought. But when times get tough, will George stand by Esther? Will the story have a fairy-tale ending?
Intimate Apparel was the most produced play of the 2005-2006 theater season. Nottage was presented the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg new play for it.
Ott recently spoke with Connect Savannah about the SCAD production.
Who is Lynn Nottage, and what is her play about?
Sharon Ott: She's a wonderful writer, an African-American woman who just won the Pulitzer for her play, Ruined. The Pulitzer tends to be cumulative, and most people in professional theater think the award is actually due to this play.
The play is very loosely based on the life of her grandmother, who left the South and went north to New York City. She happens to make what was known as intimate apparel - camisoles, bloomers and such .
Nottage’s grandmother married a Barbadian immigrant who had worked on the Panama Canal. However, much of the play is fictionalized.
Describe the secondary characters.
Sharon Ott: Mrs. Van Buren is a transplanted Southerner who married a rich white man. Another client is a singer who sings in the bordellos.
George, the husband, is a Barbadian, and Mr. Marx, who owns the fabric store where Esther buys her fabric, is a Romanian Jew. It’s a wonderful cross-cultural look at 1905 New York City.
How many are in the cast?
Sharon Ott: There are six in cast who have been working since the beginning of spring quarter, actually the end of winter quarter. The play is a complex, mature play, so I gave the students lots of time.
This is a subtle play. The students took lots of material home on spring break and did research about New York, single women of the time, and the Tenderloin.
Are period costumes used?
Sharon Ott: The costume department made all the corsets, which was great fun for them to do. They’re supposed to be made of exquisite fabrics.
The costume designer said to me, "This is a costume designer’s dream to work in period clothing and do the great underclothing women were wearing at that time." We have an actual treadle sewing machine on stage and our actress had to learn how to use it. She actually does a little bit of sewing during the play.
Who plays the lead role of Esther?
Sharon Ott: She is a first-year graduate student named LaTonya Tolbert. She comes into this profession after having been a dancer with Alvin Ailey and a choreographer with Alicia Keys. She's 35 and a single mom and a wonderful young actress.
What was particularly challenging about staging this production?
Sharon Ott: It has a lot of locales. It's always a challenge to try to figure how to deliver a play with that many settings.
There are different accents, which are difficult for any actor, particularly student actors. We have a Barbadian accent and a Romanian Jewish accent. One student went to the Jewish Educational Alliance for help with the accent and cultural information.
Why will people want to see this play?
Sharon Ott: I think the fact that the playwright just won a Pulitzer is a nice indication. If people are interested in the best writing for contemporary theater, they’ll want to see this play.
Also, it’s set in a very, very interesting milieu. It’s not often you get to go to the theater and see such an interesting array of cultures and people on a stage set in a period like 1905.
It has both the feel of a period piece and a cross-cultural play, but mostly it’s just a darn good story. Her writing is exquisite, very lyrical, very sensitive and lovely. It’s not a comedy, it’s a drama, but it is warm and life-affirming.
Intimate Apparel will be presented May 7, 8 and 9 at 8 p.m. and May 10 at 3 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St. Tickets are $5-$10. Visit the SCAD Box Office at 216 E. Broughton St., or call 525-5050.